Provence travel guide

Its alluring Mediterranean coast positively glows with glamour, but it is in the quieter interior, a patchwork quilt of picturesque hilltop villages, classic French farmers markets, ancient Roman monuments, vineyards, and fields of lavender stretching out as far as the eye can see that you will find the authentic Provence.
These are the landscapes that inspired Cézanne and Van Gogh to capture them on canvas not once but over and over again, and in summer they can feel light years apart from the crowded Côte d’Azur.
Here the traveler can quite happily slip into a hypnotic state, lulled by a clicking chorus of cicadas, the thud of petanque balls hitting the earth, and the butter-yellow Provençal sun. Provence is less a place, more a shared cultural identity. It’s a happy coincidence that avoiding the rampantly overcrowded coast helps to preserve the traditional ways of life that makes this region so appealing.

Learn more with our Provence travel guide

Provence is…

pleasantly authentic still, so long as you stay inland well away from the glitz and crowds of the Côte d’Azur that is.

Provence isn’t…

somewhere to come if your preferred vacation cuisine tastes only run as far as Le Big Mac – this is a region where farm-to-fork is the norm rather than the exception.

What we rate & what we don't in Provence

Underrated

Rural life

The glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, also known as the Côte d’Azur, draws many thousands of vacationmakers every year, where if they happen to be in the right place at the right time, they might rub shoulders with European royalty or Hollywood celebrity. But not everyone finds the beautiful but crowded Mediterranean coast as appealing a place to spend their entire vacation, and for that reason we recommend staying further inland, in a rural village such as Saint Jeannet. You’ll find a more laidback ambience, magnificent scenery and, dare we say it, a taste of the ‘real Provence’.

Going local

When it comes to vacation accommodations and activities, there are huge benefits to going local, maybe the most important being that you can practically see the impact of the money you’re spending rather than it disappearing into the overseas coffers of some corporate giant. Staying in locally owned hotels and auberges allows you to pick up on hints and tips of places and activities that only someone fully immersed in the community could know, while your food is going to be fresh, taste better and of course have low food mileage if it’s sourced from local markets and farms.

Pedal or pied

Cycling and walking are the best ways to get around Provence, rather than driving. Provence’s hilly terrain and winding roads would be incredible driving terrain – if it were just you. As it is however, tailbacks are likely in places, especially in summer. Luckily, there is no need to have your own car during your vacation, as you can get there by train with ease, and many responsible operators and accommodations will be more than happy to lend a hand with transfers.
Rated

Provençal cuisine

In Provence, eating well is not so much a luxury as a way of life. Gastronomy-themed itineraries help you to explore this region’s delectable cuisine with cookery classes, tasting sessions at olive oil mills, goat cheese farms, vineyards and local markets. Dive into Provençal cuisine such as Caillettes de Chabeuil, papetons d’aubergine, bouillabaisse and a wealth of cheeses, honeys and pastis.

Gorges du Verdon

This region is hardly low on natural beauty, but the Gorges du Verdon is a standout. Many consider it second only to the Grand Canyon in spectacle, and you can gain incredible viewpoints of the bright turquoise river running through it by walking around the rim. There are several hiking trails around the gorge: guided small group walking tours will ensure you find the best of them.

Roman relics

Provence boasts some of the best-preserved Roman architecture in Europe, from the amphitheatre of Arles and theatre of Orange (both of which are still used today, and the latter is considered the finest in the world) to the Pont du Gard aqueduct, and the Glanum triumphal arch near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. These monuments are so numerous that they often make fascinating diversions on walking or cycling vacations in Provence.
Overrated

Cannes

Long a favoured haunt of the rich, the famous and the royal, Cannes is one of the best known destinations along the French Riviera, known of course for its annual film festival, as well as its grand mansions and the palm tree-lined Promenade de la Croisette. But once you get past the reputation, Cannes isn’t all that. The beach is nothing to write home about, it can be ridiculously expensive to eat and shop, and it’s also quite tacky in places. Sure, stop by for a few hours, but base yourself elsewhere.

Lavender fields

The deep mauves of Provence’s famed lavender fields set against the green hillsides and blue sky make for a striking image, and they’ve become a global attraction in recent years, since their appearance in a Chinese TV show. That means coachloads of people making their way around the Valensole plateau and the Luberon in search of that perfect Insta-shot. Who needs the hassle? Provence isn’t short of a beautiful view.

Bullfighting

While bullfighting is dying out across Europe, in some regions, such as Provence, this barbaric form of ‘entertainment’ continues in places such as Arles and Nîmes. Course Camarguaise events are often viewed as a more ethical form of bullfighting, since the bull is not physically harmed (though it is still placed under considerable mental and physical stress) – we recommend you avoid any form of unnatural animal entertainment, and especially bullfighting. No matter how far back the tradition runs, it’s still cruel.

Our top Provence Vacation

French Riviera vacation, walking, culture & cooking option

French Riviera vacation, walking, culture & cooking option

Experience real French culture while relaxing mindfully...

From 450 to1080 4 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip runs every week (April- Nov) with a set itinerary but the length of stay & arrival date can be adjusted to your needs
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Provence or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

To me, Provençal Cuisine is the food of the sun.
– Jérôme Roy, head chef of Michelin-starred Le Cloître

Eating & drinking

Championing seasonality and locally sourced produce, Provençal cuisine is some of the finest in France, which, if you hadn’t heard, already has quite a reputation. Liberally seasoned with olive oil, garlic and herbs, traditional dishes such as ratatouille or bouillabaisse burst with rich flavour, while the watchwords tend to be simplicity and seasonality. Rabbit, lamb, escargot and fresh seafood regularly make an appearance on menus, their presence of course determined by how far you are inland.

Rare is the Provençal meal that isn’t accompanied by a tapenade. This pureed mix of olives, capers and olive oil dates back at least to Roman times, and is usually served as an appetiser with bread. This salty paste serves as the perfect accompaniment to another Provencal specialty, a chilled glass of pale rose wine. Look out for homemade pots of the stuff in local markets, an ideal gift. Another common feature of Provençal cooking is of course the traditional herbes de Provence: marjoram, savory, thyme, rosemary and oregano. Again you’ll see little sacks of the dried herbs on many market stalls, an attractive alternative to a plastic container from the supermarket.

Provence is home to France’s oldest wine region – the ancient Greeks were producing wine here when they first settled in what is now Marseilles, and of course you couldn’t keep the Romans away from their vines. There are nine protected AOCs in Provence, producing some 1,000 different wines, particularly reds and rosés. Among the most well known is the prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
They squeeze shoulders, slap backs, pummel kidneys, pinch cheeks. When a Provençal man is truly pleased to see you, there is a real possibility of coming away from his clutches with superficial bruising.
– Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence

People & language

Mayle’s popular recollections of Provence have contributed to a slightly clichéd view of the region, but it’s undeniable that there is a distinct cultural identity here, perhaps because Provence only became part of France in the late 15th century.

Harvey Downard from specialist operator Cycling for Softies agrees:
“Certainly in the areas that we operate in everything feels very genuine and not overly commoditised. I won’t profess to know exactly how they do it or why this is, but I suspect it is helped by the incredibly strong regional identity and a degree of cultural stubbornness, that results in the locals being naturally proud and a little protective of their home and way of life. It’s also worth noting that the slow Provençal lifestyle is a very romantic ideal for a lot of people and one of the things that made Provence an attractive destination in the first place, so that may mean that visitors are a little bit more mellow than in some other popular European destinations.”

Provençal is the southern French expression of the romantic Occitan language once prevalent across much of Europe, spread via the traveling storytellers known as troubadours. You won’t hear it often, if at all, during a vacation in Provence, but you will notice it on street signs. If you do speak some French, don’t be surprised if you can’t pick up much from spoken Provençal as it’s actually closer to the Catalan language than it is to the French you’ll hear in Paris.
Changer l’eau des olives – change the water in the olives (pop to the toilet)

Il est brave – he is brave (i.e., brave, but not perhaps especially smart)

Gifts & shopping

You can’t get away from lavender in Provence – vast fields of the mauve gold wave gently in the breeze between June and August; it’s a hallmark of cosmetics and soaps, pops up now and again in the cuisine, and market stalls will often sell dried bunches of the stuff for a few euros. Buy some for a friend early on, and it will keep the contents of your suitcase smelling lovely throughout your stay.

Handmade soaps from Marseilles (Marseilles de Savon) make for a lovely gift, infused perhaps with lavender or olive. We recommend sticking to the green-tinged soaps that are made with local olive oil rather than those made with palm oil though, given the environmental destruction wreaked by that particular product.

Calissons are diamond-shaped candied fruits, mixed with dried almonds and iced, and a favourite product of Aix-en-Provence. Legend has it their name means ‘little hugs’, because King Rene of Anjou had a bride-to-be in Jeanne de Laval who never smiled, and so he asked his favourite pastry chef to come up with something special to tickle her fancy.

Benoit from the Frogs’ House, a family-run guesthouse in Provence:
“Saint Jeannet is fantastic for souvenir shopping especially for foodies – you've got great olive oil here and tapenade of course, and locally made wine. Nearby is the small village of Tourettes sur Loup, which specialises in making products from violet flowers – soap, candles, syrup, candies, even ice cream!”

How much does it cost?

300g block of lavender-infused Marseilles de Savon: £4.95

Spa day in Geroux les Bains: €60

Main course at a good seafood restaurant in Cassis: £25-£30

Anticipated price of Cézanne’s ‘The Card Players’ were it sold today: £275 million

Admission to the Cinéma de la Plage open air screenings during the Cannes film festival: £0

A brief history of Provence

“Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They're coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!”


The somewhat bloodthirsty lyrics of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem which originated from Provence, seem somewhat out of step with the wonderfully tranquil atmosphere with which the region is imbued. Yet Provence has a long, proud and frequently turbulent history that may surprise you. Ruled over the centuries by Romans, counts, Popes and Napoleon Bonaparte, its heavenly coastline was bombed during World War II, its historic towns such as Orange and Nîmes the scenes of grisly massacres during France’s Wars of Religion in the 16th century. Read more
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andrew Lawson] [Is/Isn't: NwongPR] [Underrated: freddie marriage] [Rated: ToNic-Pics] [Overrated: pxhere] [Eating & Drinking: Varaine] [Gifts & Shopping: PatrickBlaise] [How much does it cost?: Álvaro]
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